Essays on Technology and Culture

Cooking and the Advanced Beginner

It always amazes me when I meet someone who claims they don’t cook—especially those who don’t cook because they “don’t know how.” This is alien to me. Food was a part of my life from the earliest. I had a little kids cookbook growing up that my parents and I would cook out of some weekends. On Saturdays, my Mom would watch the cooking shows on WHYY. I grew up on The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook. Later, I would watch the Food Network, and develop a fondness for the brilliance of Alton Brown. I understand that not everyone was lucky enough to have parents who had time to cook, or care enough about what their family ate, or any of a host of things… but to not have the simple appreciation for food that you want to make your own just confuses me.

But, when you think about it, cooking is actually difficult. You have to measure things, and time things. Add too much of one spice, and that’s all you taste. Don’t cook your chicken long enough, and you’re vomiting and moaning in pain. There are sharp things that you can cut yourself on. There’s fire. Then there’s washing the dishes—cooking is a pain in the ass. But when it comes together, it feels so good. Even if you’re just following a recipe, cutting into a roast chicken (an intimidating, but actually quite easy thing to make), or stabbing a forkful of scrambled eggs… it feels great. Even when it doesn’t come out perfect.

Cooking is one of those skills where you get (almost) instant feedback. You know if your risotto is undercooked, or if your pasta is overcooked. You can even save a recipe that’s going off the rails if you realize your mistake quick enough. If only everything had that level of obvious feedback. With almost every other skill, it’s easy to get stuck in advanced beginner mode for life where all you know is what you know, and what you don’t know is how little you truly know. I don’t want to steal Merlin Mann’s thunder here. His latest talk, “Advanced Tricycling,” hits all the salient points, and then some.

Advanced Beginner For Lyfe

It’s easy to lull yourself into complacency with the lies of “I already know enough about $thing,” or “I don’t need to know $thing.” Learning more is always a good thing. A more insidious problem is identifying what you need to learn next. The Internet pulls us in so many different directions. There’s a shiny new thing you can discover with every tap you make on your portable computing device. With Internet-Enabled ADHD keeping us from plopping our butts in our chairs and banging our heads against the keyboard until we climb up to the next level of the Dreyfus Model, we’ll hit Advanced Beginner and stay there while we try to become an Advanced Beginner at the next thing. And if you stay at Advanced Beginner on the first thing, you’re lucky. Skills atrophy with disuse. I tried to make an omelette for the first time in about two years last week. It was edible, it was tasty, and nobody died, but it was not an omelette.

Combine Internet-Enabled ADHD with all the silly talk about following your passions, and doing what you love, and all that crap, and it’s no wonder the forae of the Internet are chock full of fellow Advanced Beginners, blissful in their ignorance of their own ignorance, and keeping the vicious cycle alive. It sucks. It especially sucks if you’re in that spot where you know you need to know something, but you don’t know what you need to know. But, to quote Merlin again, “It’s hard to know what you’ll need to know in order to know what you’ll need to know.” Advanced Beginner-ism is so infectious that it infects trying to solve the problem of being an Advanced Beginner. Just ask anyone who’s tried to “do” productivity instead of being productive. (See also, this relevant Merlin Tweet.)

The only way out is through.

It’s not much of an answer, but it’s something. The real symptom of the Advanced Beginner is a focus on outcome over process. It must look like the ideal thing in your head, or at the very least, like the design brief someone in the Art Department dropped on your chair while you got coffee. You’re not going to get the chance to execute on this during your day job. It’s more a guideline to avoid living life like an Advanced Beginner applying the same limited set of tools to an ever evolving set of problems. Sometimes you just need to pick something crazy and new—or something you did before and failed at—and just try it. Then whiff, fail, and try to do it again a different way. Open your cookbook to a new page, and try cooking something else.